WASHINGTON —President Trump met again this past week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in his continuing attempts to work out a denuclearization deal, scoring an historic first and possibly higher job approval ratings here at home.
They shook hands at the demilitarized zone between the divided Korean nations, where Trump briefly walked into North Korea, becoming the first U.S. president to set foot in the isolated nation. What followed was a nearly one-hour meeting where they agreed to have their teams work out the basis for future negotiations.
Only this time, Trump was pursuing a far more cautious approach than the failed talks that he led four months ago in Hanoi. This isn’t a billion-dollar-plus real estate deal he could clinch in a day, but a tough, tortuous, argumentative, frustratingly glacial process measured in months, if not longer.
“Speed is not the object,” he confidently explained to reporters after their meeting. “We want to see if we can do a really comprehensive, good deal. Nobody knows how things turn out, but certainly this was a great day. This was a very legendary, very historic day.
“It’ll be even more historic if something comes up, something very important,” he said. “Very big stuff, pretty complicated, but not as complicated as people think.”
Kim seemed to appreciate the gravity of the meeting and what was at stake this time around, telling Trump as he stepped across the border into North Korea and shook hands, “I never expected to see you in this place.”
What was especially significant about this meeting was the gushing praise by North Korea’s state media, calling it the “meeting of the century” between the two leaders.
Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party, splashed pictures across its front page of Kim and Trump meeting each other at the border and sitting together to plan their talks in South Korea.
The North Korean newspaper focused much more heavily on the three leaders of North and South Korea and the U.S. meeting together, reporting that they had “shocked the world.”
The meeting, the paper reported, was “a marvelous event that has created unprecedented trust” after decades of bitter hostility.
But few observers were ready to go that far, after North Korea has given the U.S. and South Korea plenty of reasons to distrust Kim Jong Un’s treacherous, armed-to-the-teeth regime.
Still, other observers say there are plenty of reasons to enter into negotiations with him, but with our eyes wide open —remembering President Reagan’s cautious admonition in his dealings with the Russians: “Trust but verify.”
“Kim is shifting the grounds of his legitimacy in two ways,” John Delury, an East Asia scholar at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told The Washington Post. “Instead of ‘I will keep you safe,’ he is saying, ‘I will help you prosper.’ That opens up all kinds of possibilities —that North Korea will no longer be a besieged garrison state but move on a more normal trajectory as an East Asian country,” he said.
First and foremost, of course, Kim wants U.S.-led economic sanctions lifted off his starving, poverty-ridden economy. But what is he willing to give up in return?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Sunday that U.S. sanctions are set to remain in place, though it has been reported that North Korea is prepared to offer partial denuclearization first in response to some sanctions relief.
Negotiating experts have cautioned Pompeo’s staff to obtain a more accurate picture of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons inventory before committing to any trade-off deal.
“Despite two U.S.-North Korean summits and repeated efforts at engagement, there is still not even an agreed-upon definition of ‘denuclearization,’” says Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
This is the Trump administration’s first high-level test at nuclear gamesmanship with an untrustworthy adversary who has threatened his neighbors with his saber-rattling, including missile tests over Japan, and lethal attacks on North Koreans who have fled to South Korea. Kim also has hidden many of his nuclear missiles under vast mountain ranges.
At this point, he simply cannot be trusted.
Donald Lambro has been covering Washington
politics for more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and commentator.